(Rachael Kable) Habit triggers can be helpful when you want a reminder to do something for your own good. The trigger prompts you to complete the habit.
by Rachael Kable, June 3rd, 2020
But what about bad habits? Those also have triggers. In many cases, avoiding the trigger is a good strategy for escaping the bad habit. That’s not always possible, of course, and that’s where “urge surfing” can help by giving you the ability to interrupt the follow-through from trigger to the bad habit.
I learned about urge surfing as a way to break my habit of compulsively checking email and social media because of the way this habit ruined my sleep and my mornings.
My goal was to avoid checking my emails (and social media) for the hour before bed and the first hour after waking up in the morning. I thought it was going to be a cinch. What I didn’t expect was how compelled I’d feel to check my phone at the end of the day and first thing in the morning.
Some days, I woke up before my alarm started and lay there thinking, “don’t check emails, don’t check emails, don’t check emails.” I realized that breaking my habit was going to be a little harder than I thought.
Fortunately, I was already familiar with the useful habit-breaking mindfulness technique called “urge surfing.” I decided to employ this technique to support myself through the process of breaking my habit.
And, it worked.
What is Urge Surfing?
Alan Marlatt was a clinical psychologist and research pioneer in the field of addictive behaviors and treatment. He also coined the term “urge surfing.” In his book, Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors (first published in 1985 and revised in 2005), he wrote “…urge surfing is an imagery technique to help clients gain control over impulses to use drugs or alcohol. In this technique, the client is first taught to label internal sensations and cognitive preoccupations as an urge, and to foster an attitude of detachment from that urge.”
Urge surfing is not about “eliminating” a desire, but instead, about accepting it and allowing yourself to experience it, without taking action.
In 2009, a study of 123 undergraduate smokers found that urge surfing didn’t necessarily reduce the number of urges, but it did help change their responses to those urges. Over a seven-day follow-up period, the participants who were taught to urge surf smoked significantly fewer cigarettes than the participants who weren’t taught to urge surf.
Urge surfing can be a valuable technique in managing a variety of different urges, including smoking, drinking alcohol, and other addictive behaviors. Not only have I used this technique to break my unhelpful habit of phone-checking, but I also successfully applied it a few years ago when I was breaking the habit of cracking my knuckles during stressful times.
The reason why urge surfing can be helpful is that cravings are usually temporary. While estimations regarding the exact length of a craving tend to vary (depending on the type of craving and the strategy used to cope with it), most of the research suggests that urges tend to subside in less than 30 minutes.
The other good news is that each time you outlast an urge, the less frequent and intense it can become in the future. I experienced this effect myself — the first week of urge surfing was the most challenging. I often felt frustrated by the strength of my desire to check my phone first thing in the morning and before going to sleep. I even found myself trying to justify a “quick check.”
For example, I’d think, “I shared a post on Instagram a few hours ago about having space for a new client — I’ll quickly check my emails to see if someone has signed up. But I won’t open any other emails!” Or, “I’ll check my emails, but I won’t let myself be bothered by anything urgent. I’ll just tell myself it can wait until tomorrow and forget about it” (even though I knew that wouldn’t really work!).
However, the more I implemented urge surfing, the easier it became to master my unhelpful habit. Below, you’ll discover five simple steps to help you try this mindfulness technique out for yourself!
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How to Urge Surf in Five Steps
Step 1: Accept that urges will occur
“The focus is on identifying and accepting the urge, not acting on the urge or attempting to fight it.”
— Alan Marlatt
A habit can be hard to break because it settles over time and becomes a natural part of your routine. When you decide to alter a habit, it will likely challenge you. That’s normal!
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, habits start with a psychological pattern called a habit loop. In the habit loop, there are three processes: a cue (or trigger), a behavior, and a reward. As you continue implementing a habit, your brain has to work less and less to make decisions. And so, the habit becomes almost involuntary.
In my case, getting ready to turn out the light at night became my “cue” to check my phone one last time. The behavior was picking up my phone and opening my email app. The reward (most of the time) was relief — if there weren’t any new emails, I could go to sleep knowing I was up-to-date.
The first step to implement urge surfing is acknowledging that you will feel compelled to complete your habit. For example, when I decided to stop checking my phone before going to sleep, the first week was particularly challenging. I actually felt more stressed because I didn’t get to experience a sense of relief from checking my phone.
A few times, the stress was so intense that I stopped urge surfing and checked my emails (I was waiting to hear from a potential client about working together, and I was keen to receive their response). Rather than criticizing myself and giving up on urge surfing entirely, I gave myself space to make mistakes.
I reassured myself that it was reasonable to feel stress and frustration during the process and to talk kindly to myself when my efforts didn’t go to plan. Some affirmations I used included:
- I’m allowed to make mistakes — there’s no need to be perfect
- Urge surfing is a challenging experience, but I will learn from it
- I’m gradually working towards a better morning and night-time routine
- I’m feeling stressed right now, but it’s a temporary experience
It’s essential to recognize that your urges won’t magically disappear, and it might be hard not to take action upon them. However, this is a normal part of the process. You don’t need to be perfect, but also try to learn from each mistake so you can develop your resilience.
Step 2: Notice when an urge arises
It can be helpful to identify your “cues” so you can be ready to notice your urges (rather than engaging in your habits without thinking).
- Do you engage in your habit at a particular time of the day or in a certain place?
- Is there an emotion that triggers your habit?
- Does a person in your life prompt your habit?
Once you know what your potential cues are, you might be able to spot unhelpful behaviors a little faster.
Whenever an impulse does arise, notice it (without judging yourself for it). For example, “I really feel like picking up my phone so that I can check my emails.”
You might also observe different sensations relating to your urge. Is there an area in your body where you most feel the urge? How much space does it take up? Do you perceive the urge as a particular color, shape, or temperature?
Observing the desire in detail might seem like an insignificant step, but it can be surprisingly powerful. A study published in 2010 found that participants who tried to control their behaviors by suppressing their thoughts about a habit were significantly more likely to engage in that habit than participants who expressed their thoughts.
While you might feel like ignoring urges helps, this method could actually be detrimental to your efforts to change your habit. Instead, notice your desires directly and explore them with curiosity and open-mindedness when you can.
Step 3: Refrain from taking action on your urge
Once you’ve noticed an urge, try not to act upon it. This will allow you to experiment with urge surfing!
This step can be difficult, so you might prefer to start by delaying the habit, rather than attempting to resist it altogether. For example, you could try delaying the habit for five minutes so you can experiment with urge surfing. Next time, you could try delaying it for seven minutes. Then ten minutes. Eventually, you might find that you can refrain from acting on your urge altogether.
Step 4: Visualize your urge as a “wave”
Personally, this step was hard for me, as I’m not a particularly visual person. Instead, I enjoyed the concept of thinking about an urge as a wave because it reminded me that urges are temporary. For example, I reassured myself that “This urge is like a wave — both end eventually.”
However, if you do enjoy visualizations, you might like to explore this step using your imagination. Picture your urge as a wave, growing higher and wilder, then crashing on the shore, and receding. The waves might become monumental as your desire peaks, then become smaller as your desire wanes.
Step 5: Focus on your breath
In an interview, Alan Marlatt said, “An urge is like an ocean wave that grows bigger and bigger as it approaches the shore. As it grows, there’s the desire to just give in, but if you do, you’ll reinforce the power of the addiction. Instead, you can ride the ‘wave’ by using the breath as a kind of surfboard.”
When your urge builds in intensity, try moving your attention to your breath. Take a few deep inhales and exhales, feeling your chest and ribs expanding and deflating. Alternatively, try pursing your lips (like you’re blowing bubbles through a straw) during each exhale to make it last longer.
You might notice your urge starts to dissipate while you focus on your breath. If the intensity begins to build again, move your attention back to your breath. Speaking from my experiences, this step becomes much more comfortable with practice! At first, I found it difficult to concentrate on my breath when the urge was intense, but it gradually started to flow.
For example, at first, I could only take one or two conscious breaths before I started thinking about checking my phone. I’d catch myself getting distracted and re-focus on my breath. My mind quickly wandered again.
One night, I started feeling particularly frustrated until I was almost on the verge of crying. That’s when I began pursing my lips and exhaling through them to help myself focus on my breath. I found this alternative way of breathing worked well for me and not only helped me feel a little calmer but also gave me something practical to do while I paid attention to my breath.
What Happens Next?
I’ve been using urge surfing to break my phone-checking habit for nearly two months now. I still experience the desire to check my phone before bed and in the morning, but it’s much easier to resist taking action.
Was it worth the effort? Absolutely! I was decidedly dissatisfied with my phone-checking habit. I knew it was interfering with my good sleep routine, and it kicked off my days with a dose of stress rather than intention or pleasure.
Instead, I now spend the first hour of my day eating breakfast mindfully, playing with my dogs outside, taking a relaxing shower, and sometimes doing a workout or a yoga session.
At night, I go to bed, read a book for half an hour, do a meditation, then drift off to sleep while my partner usually watches an episode of an animated show on his computer.
No more sneaking out of bed to reply to an email in the dark or lying awake feeling stressed about what I was missing out on in my inbox. At first, it felt like a tough habit to break, but now, I’m proud I stuck to it. It’s a small change, but it’s enhanced my daily life and helped reduce stress.
Maybe, you too will find that urge surfing can help you alter an unhelpful habit. Be patient and allow for imperfection — this technique can be a little challenging in the beginning. You might be used to suppressing urges and fighting against them, or mentally beating yourself up and triggering shame. I’ve been there, too! However, urge surfing is not only a more self-compassionate way to overcome unhelpful habits; it’s also been much more effective.
Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique that can be helpful in breaking habits. It involves observing an urge without taking action and then allowing the urge to subside in its own time.
It might take some time and patience to implement urge surfing yourself, but it can be well worth the effort!
About The Author
Published author, coach and host of The Mindful Kind podcast. Bachelor of Psychological Science. Mindfulness and stress management tips at www.rachaelkable.com
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